The Epitome of Jewishness by Bruce Springsteen
It could be his last name, which was accidentally spelled “Springstein” by The New York Times. Or he may be known for his mensch commitment to social justice.
No matter how it happened, you, or someone you know, probably mistook Bruce Springsteen for a Jew.
To clarify: The Boss is not a member of the tribe and his Catholic roots are well documented. But can that really stop Springsteen from being Jewish-ish? Some say the New Jersey legend could at least blend in with the pack.
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“I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but I’ve always felt that Bruce is a really spiritual guy,” said Temple Sinai Rabbi Daniel Fellman, a lifelong Springsteen fan. “He struggles with things. He tries to make sense of things. He uses his art to try to help others in ways that most musicians don’t.
While growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, Fellman was struck by Springsteen’s music at age 12, and she stuck with him. Fellman first saw the E Street Band in the early 2000s while in rabbinical school.
“I went with a group of classmates from rabbinical school, but we also went with a Talmudic teacher,” laughed Fellman.
Years after rabbinical school, Fellman finds ways to tie his love for Springsteen to theology. After his ordination, he moved to New Jersey, where he was commissioned to prepare a Jewish course on death and agony. Due to the Garden State’s proximity to New York, Fellman felt the effects of 9/11 firsthand. This inspired him to base the class on Springsteen’s 2002 album “The Rising.”
“It seemed like Bruce Springsteen had done what no other artist had done, which was to try to write a eulogy for the whole disaster,” Fellman said. “’The Rising’ is a healing album. It’s an album of songs that could be psalms. Any of them could be a reading at a funeral. I brought a stereo to class and played the lyrics. We went through all the songs on this disc and talked about the Jewish way of dying and grieving using these songs.
And while there are certainly thematic overlaps between the Tanakh’s and Springsteen’s lyrics on songs like “The Promised Land,” Fellman thinks the connection is even bigger than that.
“If you go to a Bruce Springsteen concert, you can’t help but come away feeling uplifted the same way you would if you went to a Jewish wedding or a Jewish celebration,” Fellman said. “We’re pretty good at leaving all of our emotions on the floor and living them. You know, dancing the hora is a huge emotional experience. A Bruce concert is the same kind of thing.
Of course, Fellman isn’t the first person to note the Springsteen-Jewish connection, there’s also the more anecdotal approach, as seen in Eric Alterman’s chapter of “Long Walk Home: Reflections on Bruce Springsteen “.
Alterman recounts how he skipped a Yom Kippur service to go see the iconic 1979 “No Nukes” concert.
“That night, me and (I assume) everyone else in attendance believed in the ‘Promised Land,'” Alterman wrote.
There’s also Azzan Yadin-Israel’s 2016 book “The Grace of God and the Grace of Man: The Theologies of Bruce Springsteen,” which devotes an entire chapter to what Yadin-Israel calls “Springsteen’s Midrash.” It deals with songs like “Adam Raised a Cain” and “Swallowed Up (In The Belly of the Whale)” by connecting them to their biblical counterparts in Genesis and the story of Jonah.
Abby Mendelson, journalist, author and professor at Chatham and Point Park universities, thinks the comparison is twofold. He noted that many of the great lyricists of the 20th century are Jewish, such as Bob Dylan and Paul Simon.
“When you look at the people who really had something to say in depth, who wanted to describe the world and make it a better place, they’re not exclusively Jewish, but there are a lot of them,” Mendelson said.
“Springsteen seems to fit in wonderfully well with them,” he continued. “You hear the idea of changing the world, not just talking about the scents of life. He really has something to say.
But Mendelson also compares Springsteen’s lyrics to great playwrights, especially those who focused on working class and labor issues, like Clifford Odets. He believes Springsteen is most connected to Judaism through a mutual concern with those who are disadvantaged.
“How are we defined as Jews, as a people and as a culture? One of the ways we are defined is as former slaves. Remember, you were strangers in a foreign land. We’re always, always, always looking for the underdog,” Mendelson said. “As a people, that’s how we feel, and that’s where Springsteen is.” PJC
Ethan Beck can be reached at [email protected]